Laal Kaptaan Review: A Laborious Period Drama that is Neither Poetic Nor Thrilling


Laal Kaptaan Review: A Laborious Period Drama that is Neither Poetic Nor Thrilling

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In a way, Navdeep Singh and Saif Ali Khan are at a similar juncture in their careers that can be best described as something close to resurrection. In the first half of this decade, until 2015, both Singh and Khan were flying under the radar: The filmmaker had only made the competent indie, Manorama Six Feet Under, a movie that remains mostly unseen and largely undissected. And it was near impossible to slot Khan’s purpose as an actor; at the time, he flitted between pointless roles in ensemble comedies (Humshakals) and forgettable ones in action thrillers (Phantom). 

Then within a year, as if on cue, both their reputations witnessed a dramatic makeover. Singh returned to directing with the explosive NH10; the acclaim it received cemented him in public consciousness. A year later, Khan starred in Sacred Games, the first Indian Netflix original, that saw the actor take himself seriously – with tremendous results. More importantly, these successes single-handedly cultivated and sustained a renewed interest in Singh and Khan’s respective careers in a way that makes their collaboration all the more thrilling, if not poetic. 

Unfortunately, Laal Kaptaan, a period revenge saga soaked in brutality, grime, and an atmosphere of relentlessness, is neither of these things. It is laborious, dull, and chiefly, frustrating. Although at first glance, the movie, a revisionist Western, might come across as a companion piece to Abhishek Chaubey’s breathless Sonchiriya, that released earlier this year, it’s merely a ruse. Instead, what Laal Kaaptan more accurately ends up invoking is Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostanin the sense that it is at once a giant misfire, and far more inventive as an idea than it as a two-and-a-half-hour long film.

Similar to Thugs of Hindostan, the film, co-written by Singh and Deepak Venkatesa (the dialogues are by Sudip Sharma), is set in the late 1700s right after The Battle of Buxar, fought between the East India Company and the combined army of the Nawab of Oudh Shah Alam II, Nawab of Bengal, Mir Kasim, and Mughal Emperor, has been lost. At a time when the Marathas, Mughals, and the British were fighting against each other to exert their control over the country, a Naga Sadhu, nicknamed “Gosain” (Khan) chases Rahmat Khan (Manav Vij), a cruel Mughal lord across Bundelkhand. For over two decades, he is consumed by his desire to exact revenge for a decade-old slight, whose pointlessness is rivalled by its clumsy climax reveal. But he also isn’t the only one holding a grudge against Rehman Khan, who is simultaneously chased by the Marathas. There’s also a tracker (Deepak Dobriyal) willing to hunt anyone down and a mysterious woman in the mix (a wasted Zoya Hussain), who knows Rehmat Khan’s whereabouts, doing more of the same nothing.

The flaw of Laal Kaptaan is that for a film that teases to be a terse, bloody vengeance saga, its proceedings warrant barely any investment.

The flaw of Laal Kaptaan is that for a film that teases to be a terse, bloody vengeance saga, its proceedings warrant barely any investment. Part of the reason is the movie presenting the idea of revenge as a device and not as a theme: Singh neither explores that uncontrollable desire as a metaphor nor delves deep into revenge as self-flagellation. For much of the film’s bloated runtime, Singh seems satisfied just demanding that we interpret Gosain’s motives at face value without interrogating them. Even the homegrown mythmaking – wild animals, Naga sadhus, dusty terrains – seems drab as it goes on, punctured by unnecessary voiceovers and flashbacks. Nothing really seems that urgent or at stake, especially because Singh seems ill-equipped to translate the hunter-prey dynamic with suspense or tension.

That is not to say that the universe that Singh imagines in Laal Kaptaan doesn’t occasionally burst with novelty (Shanker Raman’s eye for ethnographic detail is rewarding). It’s just that it is all a bit disjointed in very many ways. For instance, the sub-plots exist for the sub-plots’ sake, effectively revealing the incompetence of the wafer-thin plot. And after a point, the film’s persuasive physicality – the production design, costumes, and the cinematography complement each other – remains its only calling card. 

The performances are caricaturish. Khan looks the part but never acts it. One of the things I’ve always admired about Khan is that he doesn’t believe in rationing himself. He has a tendency to go all out to serve any role he is playing. It’s partly what I suspect makes a Saif Ali Khan performance so enjoyable even when it is artifice. Here, that might just be the problem. On one hand, as the Sadhu, Khan unnecessarily grunts and eye-rolls with abandon, looking like someone who is in desperate need of being reigned in. On the other hand, Dobriyal is embarrassingly one-note and Vij is immediately forgettable. 

Being a film that doesn’t have anything to say, isn’t necessarily the worst thing if it can justify itself. Laal Kaptaan doesn’t feel like a result of resurrection. It feels like fatigue come to life.